If you’ve always wanted to learn the most widely spoken language in the world, now’s your chance.
Starting today, the free language-learning app Duolingo is offering a brand new course: Mandarin Chinese.
If you don’t speak a word of Chinese, never fear: The course first teaches you the basics of names, numbers, and greetings, before moving into foods, occupations, hobbies, and conversational skills for every occasion.
If you already know some Chinese, there’s a placement test that will allow you to skip over early parts of the course. Be warned, however, that Duolingo starts with both speaking and reading/writing right off the bat. If you’re like me, and can speak some tentative Mandarin but can’t read or write a word, you’ll want to start at the beginning.
The exercises vary in topic and structure, so you won’t get bored, or too comfortable. In one lesson, I was asked to match characters with their pinyin (Romanized Chinese) syllables, translate pinyin syllables back to characters, match spoken Chinese words to their pinyin syllables, and finally translate characters to English. As you advance, the pinyin is phased out, and you graduate from matching characters to translating full phrases and sentences between English and Chinese.
There’s a lot more to keep track of than there would be in a French or Spanish class, but the course moves slowly, and you can go back and repeat any lesson as many times as you’d like. Duolingo will also provide practice exercises tailored to your weaknesses.
And no matter how frustrating a lesson is, nothing can beat the the feeling of a cute green owl congratulating you when you’ve done something right.
Image: monica chin/duolingo
Chinese is a difficult language to learn, particularly because its writing system and tonal elements are incredibly different from anything familiar to English speakers. But Duolingo has done an admirable job of making the monumental task accessible and fun.